Originally written on The Sports Headquarters  |  Last updated 7/1/12

He had me fooled.

Like many in the sports world I bought into the Joe Paterno legacy. The long tenured Penn State coach seemed to exemplify all that is right in sports and the fact he had built the program into a traditional power without violations only added to that image. For over forty years he roamed the Penn State sideline, winning league titles, national titles, producing NFL pros and by all accounts improving the lives of those who came through his program. He was essentially super-human to the Penn State community and many on the outside looking in.

However, a new picture is becoming clear in light of the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal that grotesquely painted a different picture of an era at Penn State and how a predator could basically roam free. I wrote in November “I can’t think of any scenario where Joe Paterno would knowingly allow the culture he built at Penn State to be tarnished by a pedophile if he could stop it.” As more and more evidence came out and we learned more my mind turned to “well, he’s an old man. He probably was confused by it all and made an error in judgment by trusting others to handle it.”  However, there’s nothing left to wonder about any more and it’s pretty clear to see what happened.

We now know through discovered emails that things weren’t as “unknown” as the Penn State officials in the middle of the whole ordeal would have us believe. The back and forth games of “I told him this”, “I only reported what I knew” appear to be at best a gross underestimation and at worst a bold faced lie. In a report issued by CNN News, former Penn State President Graham Spanier, Vice President Gary Schultz and Athletic Director Tim Curley had learned of Sandusky’s behavior and came up with a plan that would first confront Sandusky directly about the alleged crimes. Then they’d contact the head chairman of his Second Mile charity foundation before ultimately contacting  the Department of Welfare.

Somewhere in this whole ordeal Paterno became involved and according to Curley (whose credibility albeit is shot) talked with Paterno about it and as a group they decided it wouldn’t be the best way to go about it to go directly to Sandusky. Sounds fine right? After all, was Jerry Sandusky just going to throw his arms up and call uncle? Probably not. Except they didn’t go to Child Welfare services. His Charity wasn’t shut down. So the question becomes, what on earth did they do? Nothing?

The worst part of the whole ordeal was the notion by Spanier that “The only downside for us [is] if the message isn’t heard and acted upon, and then we become vulnerable for not having reported it.” So if that statement doesn’t tell it all, the President of Penn State made it abundantly clear in his message that as important as anything in this entire ordeal was the potential repercussions they would face as a school an individuals if they didn’t turn the information they knew over to authorities.

With that said, the main point I’m making here is to not rehash the points made during the last couple days about the shortcomings of the Penn State administration. Rather how is it these figures in sports become so saintly, so free of error that we perhaps become blind to the possibility of any mistakes from them? Sports becomes all encompassing for many, myself included at times when we judge the people involved with them. It was only about a year and a half ago I wrote a piece on “Hating 101: A Tale by Bryan Doherty” where I came up with a list of athletes, teams and coaches past and present that I hated and classified them into groups. What rationale, competent person comes up with a list like that? A sports fan, that’s who.

However I’m not alone. Every day there’s thousands of people across the country that suffocate 17 and 18 year old high school athletes begging them to come play for their favorite college (I’ve fortunately avoided that one). Every year after the Super Bowl or NBA Finals we take the star of the team and begin to debate how much further he is from being the greatest of all-time. Sports has involved almost entirely into an individual spectacle as oppose to teams. The NFL Network just concluded its list of the top 100 players in the league which their peers vote on. We see the athletes and players for how we choose to see them.

Again, I’m guilty of this myself. As a Boston sports fans I paint athletes in an all-good or all-bad light regularly. Dwayne Wade might have bought a family a home after an accidental fire destroyed their previous one, but he’s the guy who dislocated Rajon Rondo’s elbow so I dislike him. Derek Jeter may have a Turn 2 Foundation that helps kids avoid the addictions of drugs and alcohol while rewarding high academic achievement, but he’s a Yankee and has hurt the Red Sox so I may overlook that. Perhaps most noteworthy is Peyton Manning, one of my all-time disliked athletes (although it’s always been on the field hate) and his work with an Indianapolis hospital. Manning has made countless visits over the years to young patients, donated millions to improve quality care and been a voice for a number of charity events at the hospital but if you heard me speak about the guy sometimes you’d swear he ran over my dog.

On the flip side of this Shawn Kemp impregnated girls all over the country in the height of his athletic prowess but he could dunk with the best  of him, so none of us really cared. Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assault and settled out of civil court with the plaintiff (which you can interpret how you want) and cheated on his wife but he’s been an elite NBA player for years and has five championships so who cares if he’s a less than stellar person. Even Manny Ramirez as a Red Sox was linked to steroids, shoved down an older Sox employee and quit on his team more times than I can count but he was an absolute beast at the plate, for my money the best hitter in baseball some years, so we just chalked it up to “Manny being Manny.”

Sports provide us year-round entertainment and give us something we can attach ourselves to even if many of our athletic achievements likely peaked at High School or in my case probably Little League and Youth Town Hockey. We love them and we put all our trust and faith into personalities who we usually only see between the lines and really don’t know all that much about off it.

I can’t speak for others but Joe Paterno just seemed like a grandfatherly figure on the Penn State sidelines. I think that’s what allowed me to blindly believe he was this fantastic guy who could do no wrong. For decades he seemed to do things the right way without resorting to the cheap and slimy tactics other coaches would use to gain an edge in recruiting or on the field. It was a refreshing sight to see someone at his age who seemed to just love the sport. He was smart, witty and friendly by all accounts I got to see. But it’s clear now there was another side to Joe Paterno that so many of us didn’t know.

His passing means he won’t get to respond to these events but frankly, as far as I’m concerned, he had his chance to do so. I don’t think these events “slipped his mind”. I don’t think he “didn’t see the relevance of them.” It’s pretty clear there was some sort of coverup or ignored action on all their parts. As a result Jerry Sandusky went on for years molesting kids who crossed paths with him. If you need more evidence of what sports and fanhood can do to people look no further than the people still defending Paterno even after the trial, even after the emails. Their minds won’t change. Joe Paterno was a God to some people and regardless of the evidence presented to them, that won’t change. It’s not crazy, it’s just sports.

Joe Paterno was clearly not the flawless, super-human he was made out to be for decades. I also doubt he was the disgusting monster he’ll be painted to be in the near future in the latest example of sports’ imagery painting. He was a man who had flaws, made a grossly stupid decision to protect a friend over protecting potential victims and likely put the well-fare of his program and school over the kids. For that I really can’t offer any defense or validity to what he did. He just did something inexcusable and selfish. He deserves any criticism that is heaped on him.

As I was scouring the internet for trust quotes I came across one from Mahogany Silverain that says ““Peace and trust take years to build and seconds to shatter.” That’s a pretty accurate way to view this whole scenario. Joe Paterno made believers out of many and it all comes back to sports. Now we unfortunately have to realize that trust and faith was misplaced by many.

Say it ain’t so Joe. Say it ain’t so.

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